1 Early on Sunday morning,[a] as the new day was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went out to visit the tomb.
2 Suddenly there was a great earthquake! For an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled aside the stone, and sat on it.3 His face shone like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow.4 The guards shook with fear when they saw him, and they fell into a dead faint.
5 Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.6 He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying.7 And now, go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there. Remember what I have told you.”
8 The women ran quickly from the tomb. They were very frightened but also filled with great joy, and they rushed to give the disciples the angel’s message.9 And as they went, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they ran to him, grasped his feet, and worshiped him.10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid! Go tell my brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see me there.”
Death has a sting, a pain that can linger and never leave the soul. The death of Jesus by crucifixion was not a glamorous thing to behold. It was painful, tormenting, heartbreaking and shattering of any form of hope for those who were present. As we read the journey He took, the imagery that plays in our minds reveals how difficult this moment of destiny was for Jesus and His disciples.
When He died, I can imagine a pain of finality that may have been felt by those who loved and cared for Him. Losing someone dear, someone you love and care for is not easy. Losing them to a painful death can be heartbreaking and it can create a traumatic scar that never leaves.
It was important for Jesus to rise up again because the only voice that is capable of shutting down the loud voice of death is life. When He rose on the third day, the powerful testimony of His resurrection was a reminder for believers all over the world to believe, and hope again.
Have you dealt with situations that seem final to you? Are you plagued with thoughts of feeling that life is not worth living? Do you sense or feel that you are at the end of your road? If your answer is yes to any of those questions, you need to fight to live. If you need help, you can get it.
Living and moving conscious of daily decisions that push you to choose better, act wiser, and try for the best takes courage and sometimes can be a battle of the will. However, life has a louder voice than death. The dead cannot breathe air or experience moments.
Do not allow the finality of circumstances, trials, or tribulations make you feel as though life is not fair or worth it. You matter, and your presence in this life, living and learning and growing allows you to make a greater impact than being dead and in the grave. Fight for your dreams, push yourself to achieve the best that you can in this lifetime and believe God to make your life worth living for, because it is.
Thank you for what you did for me through love, by sending Jesus Christ to die for me. I acknowledge the power of the cross and the reminder that you desire for me to live. Help me today to push myself to live life with joy as Jesus died for me to be filled with peace and joy. Teach me how to maximize my days, weeks and months with what matters, and show me how to use my time here on earth wisely. I desire to live a fulfilled life, and I trust you that you will show me how to.
Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain, and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds, and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Their destination? “Chow call” in the prison refectory or “Meds up!” to the cart the nurse brings on the unit for those requiring morning medication. The stretch of the arms relieves some of the tension from the cell’s hard cot, the eyes crusted literally and figuratively by biology and monotony, the floor’s terrain cold on even the warmest day when one’s address is prison. We do not know how many millions go to church on Easter–but we know how many awaken in state and federal prisons: an excruciating 2.1 million men and women arise at Easter’s sunrise to another day when they seem oblivious to anyone on the other side of the prison walls. Another several million arise in county jails, many not physically far from home but incarnations of “out of sight, out of mind” even to those who are descendants of those to whom Jesus spoke just before his arrest and incarceration “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
Yes, millions have arisen with a purpose: count down the days, occupy the mind, anticipate a visit, and perhaps even attend chapel — purpose is a precious commodity for them. They are inmates, prisoners, convicts peopling America’s jails and prisons in record numbers — over two million in state and federal prison alone — and they arise every morning about the time the Easter Sunrise service crowd shakes the cobwebs from their consciousness to face their annual celebration.
The Easter lens well fits any view of incarceration. After all, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he was an inmate. We celebrate the truth that God raised his only begotten son from the grave — we overlook the fact that the body which breathed its last before burial belonged to a prisoner. He hung between two thieve or malefactors, but “was numbered” with them as well.
Shame and Stigma of Incarceration
Incarceration in America carries more than the punishment of “doing time.” Shame and stigmatization plague an inmate during incarceration and after release. Those twin maladies spread like a virus to relatives left behind, children separated from fathers and mothers, parents grieving for their children, grandparents serving as caretakers for a generation forty, fifty, and sixty years their junior while fathers stretch their arm in the cell and mothers wipe their eyes on the block. Shame and stigma, contagious and infectious as they manifest in symptoms of silence, rendering the affected loved one incapable of sharing the true hurt with anyone at the Sunrise service in celebration of the Risen Inmate!
It is Easter sunrise…. God listens for the praise of God’s people from the cathedrals and storefronts, the megachurch and mass choirs, parish priests and local pastors, pulpit and pew. But God also listens for the prayers of the prisoner, wrestling with past demons, present conditions, and future uncertainty, all with some hope of the transformation promised by the Risen Inmate who makes all things new. Millions arose this Easter morning to attend a sunrise service. Millions more arose to attend to the business of doing time.
An important connection exists between these two populations — this dual set of early risers on Easter morning. Many of them count people in the other crowd as kin — many who run with one crowd used to sit with the other. Many who heard the sound of the choir’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” or “Praise is What I Do,” this morning once heard “Chow Up,” or the slow grind of motors turning to open a series of cell doors. The cymbal was the clanging of cages, the tambourine the rattling of chains. And some who this morning donned uniform orange, blue or tan jumpsuits once sported matching white or black robes on a morning such as this.
Preaching seldom reaches the pain felt by the incarcerated and their families. The separation traumatizes, the anger and disappointment of those left behind papered over by Sunday School memories of lessons on forgiveness. Many incarcerated parents long to see their children; some allow shame to hold their children at bay. Many who do seek the comfort of the Risen Inmate to dry their tears and encourage their hearts find disappointment in the prison chapel service when the local church sends well-meaning but poorly trained volunteers to preach sermons that the church’s pastor would never allow on a Sunday morning, especially an Easter Sunrise service.
Seldom do they hear that the Risen Inmate ministered to another convict before dying by telling him that he would be in paradise with him. They rarely hear that the Risen Inmate suffered brutally at the hands of the corrections officers, and was raised with evidence in his hands of eighth amendment violations of cruel and unusual punishment. They do not hear about the Risen Inmate’s long march up the Via Dolorosa to “endure the cross, despising the shame” as an encouragement for them to receive strength from knowing that “Jesus knows all about our struggles…” They hear an Easter message that rehearses the resurrection as saving act, but seldom as the sustaining act which brings “a living hope.”
Gospel of the Risen Inmate
The late Rev. Lonnie McLeod, who completed his first seminary degree in the New York Theological Seminary Sing Sing program said, “In all my time incarcerated, I really only heard one sermon: you messed up, you got caught, get saved …” But not only does salvation come by preaching, but also “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the “preaching of the Risen Inmate. After his release, McLeod’s preaching both in and out of prisons and jails acknowledged the pain caused by incarceration. At his passing in 2009, he was working on a Christmas sermon that dealt with the pain of incarceration. I asked him how he could make the connection between the manger and the penitentiary, and the good Dr. boldy remarked: “Trulear, this is Christmas. Everybody wants to talk about the first night of Jesus’ life. But no one wants to talk about the last night. And without the events of the last night, the first night loses its meaning! His incarceration, execution, and vindication make his birth worth celebrating!
This does not mean that prison preaching overlooks the responsibility of prisoners to own their sins. Accountability, indeed, signals a recognition of the humanity The Risen Inmate was executed to restore. The “Adam, where art thou” question lives in the Risen Inmate’s heart, for it is precisely for the sinner that he has come. He has come for the one who uses “wrong place, wrong time, wrong crowd” the same way Adam used “wrong crowd” to describe “the woman that You gave me.” He came for the violent defender of a friend’s honor, and will transform and use him even as he did Moses. He came for the popular musician who conspired to put out a hit on another man so he could have his wife, all while singing, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I see what I want.” He counted the transgressions of a contracted hit man, accessory to murder as his own- and that same man later wrote that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” The Risen Inmate sees their humanity, and for precisely that reason calls the unrighteous, the violent offender to become a deliverer of his people, the lamp of Israel, and an apostle to the Gentiles.
Not only does the Risen Inmate have a word for those persons arising in America’s jails and prisons on Easter, the Risen Inmate seeks to be seen and heard of the families left behind. Families struggle to hear a word for them in the pain of separation. They sit on the Good Friday side of the sentencing of the Risen Inmate, and don’t always see the potential for a reunion in the garden on Easter Morning. “Touch me not” stares from signs in the visitation room. It wells up in the heads on visitors subjected to searches by the corrections officers before and after time with an inmate. It is not a phrase pointing to ascension, but a descent into deprivation, motivated by security and draped in dehumanization. They want a word that addresses the morning they came to visit with new prison clothes, like the women who cam that first Easter with new grave clothes for the Risen Inmate. But when these families are told “He is not here,” it does not point to the surprise turned joy of a resurrection, but disillusionment turned panic in the discovery of a transfer to another facility, or a confinement to solitary. Does the preacher, in the name of the Risen Inmate, have a word for them?
Reimagining Our Prison Ministry
My colleague Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert once asked me to post a sermon on his website The Preaching Project, with the subject being preaching to families of the incarcerated. The message, titled “Preacher, We Are Dying in Here,” makes the case that preaching to the families of the incarcerated is something we already do! They people our pews, tithe their treasure, sing their songs, pray their prayers every Sunday, but suffer in silence. The church may have a prison ministry, but it often does not touch them, or their incarcerated family member. Prison ministry is institution focused, unlike ministry to the sick. If we replaced ministry to and visitation of the sick with the prison model, we would stop visiting individuals and families connected with the church, and just train three volunteers to give a service and a sermon once a month at the local hospital. The Risen Inmate declared that the church “shall be witnesses unto me, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” For most, the jail of prison is the uttermost part of the earth; for the family of the incarcerated, it is Jerusalem.
Preaching often overlooks the scars of the formerly incarcerated, wounded by warehousing, roughed up in reentry. They looked forward to their release date as a time to step into the Promised Land, only to discover a wilderness of collateral sanctions limiting their ability to work, find housing, access education and exercise their franchise. The wilderness extends to congregations that either openly reject them, or buy into the world’s stigmatization process rendering them silent. Theirs is a tacit fellowship of frustration shepherded by shame, silence, and stigma. And the ones who come home to this stony reality find a wilderness where they had expected grapes in bunches for two men to carry.
The newspapers and other media champion the need for jobs for ex-offenders. Employment woes dot the pages of those outlets that give the formerly incarcerated coverage at all. Poor training and education wed the stigma and shame of incarceration in a double ring ceremony that morphs from ties that bind into chains that restrict. A word from the Risen Inmate can minister Easter hope beyond incarceration, and encourage the jobless soul on the other side of imprisonment. The Resurrection says that there is life beyond the dank jail, the taunts of guards and fellow inmates, the pain of separation from loved ones. “I have scars,” Jesus declares, “but I am useful, triumphant, compassionate and giving!” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Fear not.” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Feed my sheep.” The post-release Risen Inmate declares “All power has been given unto me in heaven and in earth.”
And he promises his presence “even to the end of the earth.” There is a word for the ex-offender! A promise of a transformative permanent presence that knows how to look at a former accomplice who turned scared on him to avoid arrest, and tell him to feed his lambs. The Risen Inmate knows something about change, and trusting the formerly untrustworthy. He anticipated the change when he told Simon Johnson that he was a rock. So too does he call the formerly incarcerated by names that spell hope and promise, like the term “returning citizens.” But most of all he calls them human, beloved, and even “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that, the conspirator who put out a hit on Uriah the Hittite knew right well.
And Remembering the Victims
Is there a word from the Risen Inmate for those who have been victims of crime? What is a bold Easter message for families of victims, by walking toughs of town watch, by drive-by or beef, by violence domestic or street? Does God hear their pain on this Easter sunrise, and what evidence is there in the text expounded to let them know that the Healing God knows. The horrific screams heard on a Florida 911 tape may echo those of the sobs of a mother witnessing the unjust execution of her Son by alleged protectors of the common good. Is there no word for her?
“Woman, behold thy son, Son behold thy mother,” comes from the lips of the Preaching Inmate in a message that speaks hope and application in a moment of deep grief. When the Inmate’s visitors go home, they share space and possessions in a family reconfigured to provide care for her misery. The women received a word — but that word became flesh in the ministry of caregiving John supplied surrounding her, the victim of a horrific crime.
The Risen Inmate demonstrates in three days the woman’s vindication by virtue of the Resurrection. In the background, an Easter choir of formerly enslaved Africans, the old Jim Crow, sings: “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.”
Grabbing Resurrection Hope
Easter brims with the fullness of incarceration and its implications. It celebrates the vindication of the life of a man who did the hardest of time in the shortest of time. It recognizes that the One whose life we celebrate understood the pain of incarceration. Easter brings to judgment our fear of the inmate, our stigmatization of the prisoner, our shunning of those who return for a second chance-or a third chance, or a fourth chance…Simon Johnson elicited a response from the man destined for incarceration of seven times seventy.
Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Early on the first Easter morning, one was risen for all of them.
This essay originally appeared at The Living Pulpit. It is reposted here by permission.
Last fall, I planted bulbs in the front of our house. Daffodils, lilies, tulips, crocuses, you name it. I went a little crazy because it felt like a junior high science experiment and I wondered if it’d work. If it did, I knew that by spring I’d be seeing petals.
For urban types like me, our gardening experience is limited to a few window boxes from community block parties. So I consider it downright amazing to bury one thing in the ground and have it emerge months later something altogether different. It seems an impossible feat: in spite of concrete, asphalt and broken beer bottles, flowers with colors as bright as any New York taxi can burst forth.
I’m convinced we need the power of nature, of art and color and story, to move beyond existing and enter that place where we live fully, or at least, well. We do need words that spring forth from flowerbeds, that speak of newness and beauty and hope all wrapped up in one. If nothing else, we need the colors and fragrances of a changing season like spring to soften the concrete struggles around us. They keep us going. They inspire.
That’s the nature of resurrection.
To be sure, this undercurrent of the Christian life, this back-story of every story we encounter — death, resurrection, transformation — runs deep in our collective soul. It is the theme of more songs and films, paintings and novels, missions and centers than any other in the history of art (which is the history of humanity). We cheer for the underdog on the screen who conquers each obstacle set in her path; we marvel at the painting that stirs some feeling we’d forgotten we had. We turn the dial, change the channel or visit another creative ministry until we connect to a song or an image that draws us to a new place, a new perspective, a new way to press on.
We’re wired to hope. To look forward, not backward. We want to believe the impossible. Why? My guess is we know there is more to this earthy existence.
Thank God there is.
After Jesus died, he went for walks on the beach. After he spent three days buried in the soil of death, he cooked breakfast for a few friends. He chatted and lingered on sidewalks and in gardens, telling stories, holding hands, eating bread. Sure, he lived well before he died. Admirably. Heroically. Boldly. But after he died — that is, after his lungs collapsed and his heart stopped — he spent the next month and a half strolling through the Middle East; 40 full days of handing back hope to women who’d lost it, reminding men of the truth of scripture, encouraging hundreds of friends that there was indeed more to this world than what they saw each day as the sun came up.
Yes, that was some living.
And those days on earth after his execution were apparently so full, so exciting and rich, that John says he couldn’t record them all in his Gospel account (John 20:30, 31). Maybe the Risen Christ drew pictures in the sand; maybe he sang hymns with his friends. Maybe he picked figs or went fishing or danced jigs. Whatever else he did in his resurrected life — apart from the stories we do have — history testifies to the reality that he gave us plenty to keep reveling in the wonders of living.
To keep planting bulbs and watching for petals.
There are the stories, of course, from the Gospel narratives about his earthly ministry before death. But we should know, too, that there are other stories from the life of our Risen Lord. They are equally true stories and equally reflective of the magic — or miracle — of what happens in the garden of a human heart when the Person of God in Jesus appears.
After Jesus died, he spent what I call “very-much-alive-time” with utterly desperate friends. He walked with them (Luke 24:15), ate with them (Luke 24:41-43), comforted them (Matt. 28:9-10), taught them (Luke 24:27). He spent so much time with them, in fact, that the stories of their lives changed history. His death and resurrection planted in them new life.
And what happened to them also happened to others, and others beyond them. It still does. Miracle stories. Impossible new beginnings. Spring fragrances.
Bright daffodils that once were only hard dull bulbs. A desperate faith that blossoms into hope all because a Holy Presence dug through the soil to make a garden.
Is it time for Easter again? It doesn’t feel like Easter season. Easter (or Resurrection Sunday for the purists) is around the corner, and yet many Millennials feel little reason to celebrate. When I think of Easter, I think of special sermons, church presentations, fancy outfits, and big dinners. I also think of bunnies, eggs, and baskets thanks to corporate marketing. Ironically, what I don’t think about immediately is the Resurrection. But isn’t that the reason for the season?
For the past few years, social media campaigns have tried to remind people that Christmas is about Jesus’ birth. It has become so commercialized that people come out of the woodwork you didn’t even know were Christian. They remind everyone following them that Jesus is the reason for the season, that Jesus is the best gift we could get in the season, that Jesus wants us to give in this season, and that we should be content whether we get other gifts or not.
But Easter doesn’t have gift-giving traditions. Were it not for multi-colored chocolate eggs, most of us would not even think about what we receive on that holiday. But Easter is supposed to be the center of the Christian faith. Jesus goes to the Cross, dies for our sins, and resurrects with power, giving hope of salvation to all the earth.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Easter doesn’t immediately remind us of resurrection is because resurrection hope seems so far removed from our current situation. Current events in our world—from politics to protests, global warming to global injustice, doubt in our lives and doubt in our faith—have caused many to lose hope.
The Sweet By-and-By
It is hard to think about the hope of resurrection when we are surrounded by so much death. But that is exactly why we as Christians need to remember the Resurrection. What greater hope is there in the midst of a death culture than the revelation that death is not the end of the story? That our God loved us enough to take death on Himself and then overcame death itself?
Resurrection is not just about “the sweet-by and-by” either. We have to hold on to the promise of life after this life, but resurrection also comes when we hear the testimonies of those who are still living, still striving, still fighting, still hopeful despite facing ridiculous obstacles and even threats to their very lives.
Jesus gives new hope to a woman with an issue of blood who was treated as dead by society, and He not only wasn’t afraid of a man with a legion of demons, He set the man free and made him a missionary. Jesus is hope for resurrection in a world that needs new life.
Time to Remember
It could be because of Saint Patrick’s Day that takes place around the same time, so people are focused on Irish beer and clovers. It could be because we feel like we’ve heard the Easter sermon before, so we’ll catch it on livestream. It could be that you didn’t know Mardi Gras, Carnival, and Lent had anything to do with Easter, so it just isn’t in your mind.
It could be because no one you know buys Easter clothes, or because there will be no big dinner, or because you’ve got so many other things going on that you just forgot. But whatever the reason we weren’t thinking about the Resurrection yet for Easter, we should take time to remember it now.
It is the story of our salvation. It is the “right now” power of God. It is what we need to face today together.
Up on the cross is where Jesus overcame. I have a victorious life, but I will remain at the foot of the cross.
Sometimes I find myself getting so caught up in me and the
things I experience day to day. I think
back over my career the past thirty years and I feel as if I’ve been dealt a
bad hand. I did all the things I was
taught to do to be able to have a prosperous career. After high school, I attended a major
university and received a bachelor’s degree.
After securing a good job and working for several years, I decided to further
my education and get an MBA so I could move up in the corporate world. It wasn’t enough to boost my career, so I
joined associations in my field and even held offices. It still wasn’t enough. I had gone as far as
I could and started seeking employment with other companies.
I got another job, and I was starting to rise up the ladder.
But when a new management group came on board, I was stuck again. Less qualified people were hired on my level,
even though I had more experience. It
became clear to me that it’s not about what you know, but who you know.
I began to feel that life is so unfair. I did all the things I had been taught to do,
but I was never able to move into management positions. I complained to God, asking, “Why am I being treated so unfairly?I’ve done the right things, but I’m not prospering
like others. What am I doing wrong? Am I being punished for something I did
earlier in my life? I go to church every
Sunday. I teach Sunday School. I attend Bible study. I sing on the choir. I am
the VBS director. I don’t just know your name, but I personally have a
relationship with you.”
God dropped in my spirit: Because of who you are and whose you are, you will experience trials
and tribulations. You may never have
more than what you have. As a matter of
fact, you may have even less than what you have now. I need you to be a vessel for me. I need you to serve. You say you want to do My Will, experiencing
these types of things and not getting where you think you should be is exactly
where I want you to be.
I am understanding why I need to remain at the foot of the cross. I’ve done what I perceive to be the right things, but that doesn’t mean I will get what I have planned for my life. I need to be able to accept the disappointments in life and continue to have joy and peace. I need to know that the things I want are not necessarily the things God wants for me or needs for me to be. When His will is placed in my life, I need to know it may not look like what I expected.
Every day of my life is a victorious life. I need to stop complaining, stop
whining. Each day that I am alive is a
new opportunity for me be an example to others on how to take disappointment
and handle it as an assignment from God.
As I feed on God’s word, my actions should be as the Bible states “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20, ESV). I should be challenging myself to live a victorious life and to stay away from sin, such as complaining and whining about what I wasn’t able to accomplish but concentrate on and be thankful for my many blessings from God.
I will stay at the foot of the cross. I need to keep “executing God’s plan for my life. Keep advancing in my kingdom purpose. I need to stay focused on the outcome.” I will stay around the Cross and live a victorious life. Are you challenging yourself to live a victorious life? Search yourself and decide what you will leave at the foot of the cross.
Lord, each day I am alive is a victorious day for me. I need to be an example so others can see that I am at the foot of the cross. I have sins such as complaining, whining, gossiping, not always being humble and so much more that I need to leave at the foot of the cross. Thank you, God, that you correct me and instill in me the desire to do better. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Luke 14:27, NLT: “And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.”
TONIA WILLIAMS. Tonia lives in North Augusta, SC where she grew up. She received her BA degree in Journalism from the University of South Carolina (USC), Columbia, SC and her MBA degree from Brenau College in Gainesville, GA. She is actively involved with her church, Old Macedonia Baptist Church, where she sings on the choir, is Director of Vacation Bible School, and teaches the Women’s Sunday School class